Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Great Movies: "Psycho"

Alfred Hitchcock, 1960

Previous Contact: I saw Psycho once before, sometime in the late 90s.

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Psycho is a strange kind of entertainment, and almost certainly a surprise to any first-time viewer. Now, as a person capable of reading the English language, you almost certainly know that it involves a woman who stays at a creepy hotel with a creepy proprietor, and that she's eventually going to get stabbed in a shower while jerky, piercing music plays. But the narrative arc that you would expect, starting out with that information, is not the narrative arc you're gonna get.

[spoilers from here on out]

The first half hour of the movie, for instance, has nothing to do with motels. It's about a petty embezzlement scam pulled off by a Phoenix real estate administrative assistant. After twenty minutes and no motels, you might well think you'd somehow grabbed the wrong movie. But no, at 0:26 she finally finds the famous Bates Motel, and you settle in for what you figure must be a long series of increasingly disturbing episodes leading up to the famous shower scene. But no, the shower scene happens almost immediately. With more than half the movie still to go, you've lost the heroine who was the entire focus of the first reel, and a very different sort of movie -- a doomed search to find the missing person -- takes over.

Psycho was almost universally considered the most shocking movie of all time at its release, despite that it is not particularly graphic. For all of the tightly-wound music and human vulnerability of the shower scene, you never really see wounds. Instead, there's just shots of the knife, shots of the victim screaming in terror, and a modest amount of blood. What really made it a horrifying scene -- at the original release, people would apparently often trip over each other scrambling for the exits -- is its unexpectedness, its appearence out of nowhere from within a plot frame which would ordinarily guarantee us that the heroine would be alive and redeemed by the end credits.

Take away that big surprise, and you're left with an unremarkable plot, albeit one carried along by strong performances and strong direction. And before you get too excited about the innovative pacing of Psycho, you have to consider a long, pedantic speech that a psychiatrist makes at the end of the movie to explain what has been going on in the killer's mind. This speech would be deadening under any circumstances, but since the killer's mind is pretty much an open book by this point, it is an especially regrettable send-off to the movie.

Plot: Woman checks into the wrong hotel and is attacked by its manager, the titular Psycho. Then her friends come and look for her.

Visuals: Sharp, moody black and white. Excellent representation of familiar things, like the experience of driving at night when you're too tired, and of the unreal, like the final discovery of the hotel keeper's mother. The juxtaposition of the fantastical Bates residence looming up over the prosaic motel isn't especially subtle, but it is pretty nifty.

Dialog: Largely solid and amusing. Anthony Perkins does a supurb job of creating his character just through the slightly off-kilter delivery of his lines. Character actor Simon Oakland does about as good a job as anyone could as the psychologist, but there's just no selling that speech.

Prognosis: If you like Alfred Hitchcock, you'll like Psycho. If the idea of the shower scene scares you, just close your eyes when the shower starts.


Elaine said...

I saw this at Emory University Student Center...in the early 60's when it was still fairly recent. It left me and my date feeling, well, kind of subdued!

It's still one of the classics. (I didn't even recall the denouement--just the line, "I wouldn't hurt a fly....")

Melissa said...

What I want to know is why the heroine is in her bra in the movie poster. It's like one of those dreams where you've got a big photoshoot to promote your movie and you realize that you've forgotten to wear a shirt...

sister jen said...

I think the lack of explicit images actually increases the tension. There's an art to invoking fear by the suggestive use of sound (or lack of), shadow, etc...Hitchcock was good at it, and the shower scene is a good example. Left it to the imagination, which at the time of the film's release could really be intense. In other words, before we had the graphic scenes we're used to seeing in Tarantino, Coen Bros., etc., implied gore and violence was, I think, more frightening than it seems to us now.